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Rethinking Luxury

Posted on May 16 2012

I love Calcutta. Those of you who’ve visited this incredible city can wax rhapsodic on the abundance of artisan motifs and traditions greeting you everywhere: on a frieze above the frame of a door, on the border of a sari, or embossed on the leather of a satchel. The wealth of woven cottons and silks, the depth of storytelling through folk paintings, and the graphic beauty of kantha embroidery stop my beating heart during long walks through the city’s markets.

For many recognizable luxury brands, Calcutta also provides cheap and highly skilled artisanal labor for, among many things, leather production. In 2007, I visited the city on a sourcing trip in search of craftspeople skilled in the Santiniketan style of leather finishing. A friend from a storied textile family suggested I visit a factory that worked with well-known international brands and local artisans.

Santiniketan Leather Pencil Cases

Upon arrival, the factory owner’s wife escorted me into a lovely showroom displaying high-end leather purses, totes and wallets they manufactured for recognizable luxury brands. Brands who grace the editorial and advertising pages of every major fashion magazine you see on the news rack. As a designer working abroad, I constantly sought out manufacturers with experience producing export quality goods, so I was thrilled to know I could put my trust in their hands if we decided to work together.  She told me they received less than $100 to make each bag, and the same bags sold for thousands of dollars in boutiques and department stores around the world.

I asked her if she wouldn’t mind taking me to the factory floor. We walked through a few heavy doors onto a platform overlooking dozens of tables. Seated at these tables, I was shocked to find children ranging in age from five to seventeen. Many of them wore no shirts, and hadn’t had a bath in what seemed like days. I asked her if these children went to school, and she replied, “we do them a huge service by taking them off the streets, giving them a place to work, and a wage to buy food for themselves and their families.” I inquired if they learned to man different stations in the production process, from tanning and dyeing, and buffing to finishing.  The answer again was no. Teaching them too many skills degraded the level of skill in one particular process. This is a common disempowering assembly line strategy that limits workers. Instead of teaching them how to make a product from start to finish, factory managers choose to train them in one or two piecework skills.

The large factory compound could easily have housed a one-room schoolhouse for children to study half the day, and work the rest of the day in a modern day apprenticeship or guild setting. I suggested this to her, but she adamantly reiterated the service her family business provided these children by keeping them from the prostitution and black market rackets on the streets.

But why use children instead of adults? The profit margins are too low on the bags, she answered defensively, and the brands would go to another factory to find a cheaper price.

Needless to say, I was horrified.  Not only by the factory’s gross exploitation of these children, but more so by the pressure these large brands placed on business owners to keep production costs low, while their goods sold for sometimes twenty times what it cost to make them.

I wish I could say the names of these European luxury brands (oh I promise you’ve heard of them), but I fear it would come back to haunt me.  What I will say is we need to rethink the meaning of luxury.  Is there anything luxurious about buying a leather bag or dress produced by children who will never learn how to read or write? What’s the luxury in buying a leather bag whose creation dumped toxic chemicals into a nearby water supply?

Our tag line at Bhoomki is Ethically Fashioned Luxury.  We spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to condense our company’s mission into these three words.  At Bhoomki we believe that buying products that are good for humanity and the earth is a luxury.  Unfortunately we live in a world where the economy seeks ever widening product margins which force workers to work for less, export jobs to countries with cheap labor, and destroy communities whose livelihoods depend on factory productivity. I steadfastly believe that capitalism works best when companies don’t profit from exploiting laborers and the earth’s resources, and encourage responsible business and labor practices.

Idealistic, maybe?  Impossible, no. It’s good business for everyone when companies treat humans and Mother Earth with kindness and respect.

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